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Future Islands’ Samuel Herring: ‘I Don’t Hit My Chest So I Feel It. I Do It So You Feel It.’

"We try to be honest with our music. I think what we’re about is that raw emotion. "

By Brian Ives

Future Islands have been making their emotional, heart-on-their-sleeve music for about a decade now, and their profile has been helped by their live performances, particularly their appearance on Late Show with David Letterman in 2014, when they played “Seasons.” At the time, they got a lot of attention for singer Samuel Herring’s dance moves, but the strength of their songs allowed the trio – which also includes bassist William Cashion and keyboardist Gerrit Welmers – to grow their fanbase. Now they’re back with a new album, The Far Field (due out Friday, April 7), which they were eager to talk about. But we still wanted to ask about Herring’s fancy footwork—we still think Drake stole his moves for the “Hotline Bling” video. 

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You guys did secret shows under fake names to road-test your new songs. How did you make sure at least some people would know that it was you, so people would actually show up?

William Cashion: Well, we used to always road test new material. For the last eight years, in between tours we would write, and then we would just sneak new songs into the set. And we would do that for months, and the songs got really tight before we went to record them.

Related: Future Islands’ Decade of Touring Led to ‘Ran’

And we wanted to do little shows, but we didn’t want any attention for the shows; we wanted to kind of do it under the radar. There were three venues. One was in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, in the Outer Banks, which was cool just conceptually, because we started writing in the Outer Banks, and it was cool to make the first time we played them live in the Outer Banks.

And that was at a place called the Bonzer Shack, and the promoter there had been trying to book [Cashion’s side project] the Snails there. The way we did the shows, the way we booked them is we booked them with our friends Jenny Beseztz from North Carolina. They had a different opener every night. And we didn’t tell them ’til we got there that we were the opener and that we were actually playing second. So each show we had a different band name. The names were—should I tell the names?

Samuel Herring: Yeah.

William Cashion: The names were the Hidden Havens, which is the name of the house we stayed at when we were writing; the Chirping Bush; and This Old House.

Samuel Herring: Yeah, the promoter was awesome, because he had been trying to book the Snails because he loved Future Islands, and then we show up and he’s just like, “What are you doing here?”

William Cashion: So it was all kinda—we didn’t tell anybody. We told like a few friends in town. We also went to Virginia Beach and Arlington, Virginia. The venues were pretty intimate. But it all spread via word of mouth. As soon as we got there, the bartenders were calling their friends, and it got packed really fast. It went off perfectly. I think enough people came, and it never got out so much that there was a line or anything crazy. We just asked people not to film or record anything of the set.

Samuel Herring: I would joke at the shows like “We’re gonna give you a little poll after the show, and see what you think.” But our songs aren’t really finished until we’ve played them a hundred times, and it can be difficult going into recording an album when you haven’t played a song live. You get a lot of emotional feedback just from that—you don’t have to actually ask people what they think. You can see what they think. You can get the response and feel it from them.

So it was a lot of fun, it was good to get back out on the road, and it was also crazy because we were playing 15 new songs, no old songs. It was just like, “We’re here. You didn’t know we were gonna be here, so that’s kinda cool. You can’t be mad at us that we’re not gonna play anything that you know because you didn’t know we were playing anyways.” So it was a lot of fun and really telling and good for the process.

What’s the story behind the song “Beauty on the Road.”

Samuel Herring: Yeah, well, that song’s deeply personal, and it’s definitely to a person that I’ve sung many, many songs about. It’s funny, because the lyric is, “I left out on the road eight years ago, and you left too, but I never really thought you would leave.”

At the time it was eight years. Now it’s been ten years. But yeah, that song is definitely another one of those songs about going out on the road and losing touch with some things, being a young person who had these great dreams and the things that are lost because of going after the dream.

2016 was a hard year for me, because at the beginning of the year we’d just gotten off the road, and I realized—when I was 23 I went out on the road with these guys with the dream of being in a band that was successful enough to live completely off making our art, that we could create art, and that would be the only thing. And then at the beginning of the year, I found myself in that band, and I didn’t have anything to do. It was kind of like my goal has been reached… so now what’s your goal?

That feeling, to be honest with you, was very lonely and realizing that I gave up on some things, and a person, and maybe a few people that I really loved, to go after a dream. So that song definitely speaks to me personally as all the triumphs of the road and the beauty of being out on the road, but also this particular person as being that beauty I met out on the road a long time ago, but lost because of the road.

So that’s just really an allegory about life in general. The second verse, “You spend your whole life wishing and working, and all you get is the end of the rope,” that’s some of those hard lines.

There’s always the wonder of what could have been. So if I’d have chosen the other path, we wouldn’t be here. And who knows what that would have been? That’s the beauty.

You’ve mentioned in the past how brutally honest your band can be, and your bio mentions the power of emotional vulnerability…

Samuel Herring: For me personally, I would say it was born first as a performer, and that comes from… I don’t wanna say “the melodramatics,” but the dramatics of being onstage, the theatricalities of playing in noisy bars and wanting people to hear the words that I worked so hard on. So the largeness of the movement came from when we were playing music in college in 2004 and 2005 before Future Islands was even a band, and it’s something that has progressed over time. So to be able to tell a story with your whole body, to tell a story with your movements, with your face when people can’t hear what you’re saying.

So going from that into writing again, when we did [2011’s] On the Water, our third album, I was trying to figure out how to strip away the poetry that I’d worked so hard on through my teenage years and my early twenties to get to the raw truth of these things, to be able to say “I love you” in a song, and have it not sound like just the dumbest thing in the world, or to not sound sweet, but to be what it was when I was saying it… which was aching and heartfelt and heartbroken.

I think that signaled a real shift from putting the rage forward, which maybe was also part of me being a younger man, with coming to terms with love and loss coming to peace and understanding with it through our third album in saying those things that hurt. And the thing is, when we started to do that, even with [2010’s] In the Evening Air, before On the Water, we started to write the songs that had the raw energy and some of the anger and frustration of love, that’s when we really started to get a response back from our audience in emails and things like that after shows, before shows where people were like, “You’re telling my story.”

And the thing is when you write in a universal voice, but you tell your personal story, your story of “I’m so sad and alone. Why doesn’t anyone understand me?” that’s when you realize that there are so many people going through exactly what you’re going through.

And that’s when we started to realize, we kinda took it upon ourselves that we could help people to give them that release. And my job, I take it upon myself is to almost break myself for the audience, to open myself up to an audience so that they can open themselves up within a space. And I think that’s why our shows are important. [To William] Why are you cracking a smile at me?

William Cashion: You’re getting mad deep!

Samuel Herring: William’s getting nervous because I’m getting deep!

William Cashion:: No, no, I’m down!

Samuel Herring: But it is like if I can be onstage like a f—in’ — excuse me — like a 1950s refrigerator repairman and break down to my knees and cry for people, but get up strong and punch, air-punch across the stage, that excites people and opens people up. And it makes them cry; it makes them joyous; it makes them dance. And all of these things, this range of emotions is something to incite something of an inner child in someone or to make their feet move so their heart moves, so their mind dances.

So there’s all these different things about creating a catharsis within a space. But I think it starts with us. We try to be honest with our music. I think what we’re about is that raw emotion. But yeah, I’ve often said, I don’t hit my chest onstage so I feel it; I do it so you feel it.

You have a great singing voice, but sometimes you growl.

Samuel Herring: Well, the growl’s something I discovered live that people got really excited about when it would happen. But the growl was just born out of my vocals decaying over time and trying to hit notes that I used to be able to hit live, going for a note and then it’s like “[growls]” coming out instead. And then that becomes a tool.

I think that’s the interesting thing with the human voice is that it redefines itself, and then you have to find out how to sing. The voice changes, so new things happen. The way Tom Waits’ voice has changed over time, he grew with his voice.

And there have been times in our time together where I’ve been really scared, because I’m like, “I can’t sing like I used to.” And I get really sad about it, like, “What did I do? I should’ve taken better care.”

Then we write a song, and it doesn’t matter because when you’re writing a song, you re-learn how to do it in another way. And then you discover new things, and then it’s exciting again. But the funny thing is, I can sing a song that we wrote eight years ago exactly how I always sang it because my voice understands it. But I couldn’t write another song like that with those certain turns and things. It’s kinda funny.

When we last spoke to you, you said, “Art should be polarizing.” Do you prefer polarizing art, as a fan?

William Cashion: I think some of the best albums are ones you maybe don’t get initially. For me, the first time I heard Doolittle by the Pixies, I didn’t really get it. It took me a couple listens, and then once I got it, I really got it.

There are lots of records like that. The Soft Bulletin by the Flaming Lips was the same thing. I didn’t really get it at first, and then it grew on me, and I love it. I think that record’s amazing.

When I saw your performance on Letterman, I thought you might be influenced by the Smiths and Morrissey, who are pretty polarizing.

Samuel Herring: Oh, yeah. The Smiths’ self-titled album was huge for me in college. I’m also hip-hop head; I love words and MCs with crazy flow.

I think, in a way, I do like music that pushed and/or continues to push boundaries. But I wouldn’t say that’s what I listen to exclusively. The difference is if you write a great album that’s just simple and plays it safe, but it sounds amazing, that’s awesome. That is a record that people will listen to. But if there’s something deeper within it, it’s something that people can pick apart for all times.

And I’ve felt lucky as a writer for all the years we’ve written together because these guys have always given me a voice and pulled at my heartstrings musically. The music that they created has pulled at me. But also they make amazing music that’s accessible enough that I can hide. I can hide like diamonds and daggers and put things inside of these songs that are like secrets.

And I feel like they become those special albums that people do pick apart, we’ve found. Our supporters who have been with us for so long and new people that find out about us all the time can dig into these songs.

This is a thing that people were talking about online but when you saw Drake’s “Hotline Bling” video, did you think he copied your dance moves?

Samuel Herring: Yeah, what was up with him doing that? No, no I don’t think so [laughs]. He’s just kinda doing a little shuffle. That’s basically all I do. I was just happy that people didn’t actually get the real influence from my moves, which are probably the real influence for his moves, which is the Carlton. You know the Carlton? So I was really scared that people were gonna put those together, and I didn’t see that. I was like, “Thank you. Thank you for not doing that.”

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